Zach Mangan, author of Stories of Japanese Tea: The Regions, the Growers, and the Craft published in 2022 by Princeton Architectural Press, was a recent graduate of Berklee College of Music and a touring jazz drummer when a cup of fresh Japanese tea launched his transformation from musician to respected Japanese tea authority and purveyor.
Over the next several years he would travel repeatedly to Japan, seeking out not only excellent pots of tea but also an understanding of the history, culture, and science of Japanese tea production. The relationships he formed with tea producers there, many descended from generations of tea-growers, eventually led him to create Kettl, a tea and teaware company in New York City and Fukuoka, Japan, which he operates with his wife, the ceramicist Minami Mangan. The goal with Kettl was to bring fresh, high quality teas to the West that were rarely available outside of Japan.
Clearly, Mangan is passionate, encouraging others to “discover the deep and rich world of Japanese tea,” and the publication of this volume is a logical extension of his mission. Meant to serve as an introduction, the book focuses on “The Region: From History to Harvest,” “The Growers and Their Teas,” and “The Craft: From Procuring to Taste.”
Mangan’s approach to his subject mirrors that of a wine connoisseur. Fine Japanese tea, he asserts, deserves and rewards that same level of attention and respect. His case is a persuasive one, particularly if the reader can follow along with a companion cup of vibrant green sencha, richly foamy matcha, or savory genmaicha. He writes: “Learning and enjoying oneself are often two sides of the same coin.”
Interesting and useful information is found throughout the book. After first locating the production of Japanese tea in time and geography, Mangan presents six categories of tea, their growing and processing methods, and the proper way to brew them. He also touches on developing a palate, types of teapots, tea on ice, tea and health, and tea with and in food, offering several recipes. An appendix of terms, names, and places is a helpful addition.
While Mangan also adds a short descriptive list of recommended places to buy and drink tea in Japan, the book lacks a companion list of resources in the United States. One can’t fault him for wanting to send readers to Kettl, but the inclusion of at least a short list of other options would have made the book an even more useful primer for novice Westerners.
It’s a disappointment that the book’s information is not always presented as gracefully and skillfully as the well-brewed cups of tea Mangan discusses. His text would have benefitted from sharper editing to expand on some areas that seem slight and to eliminate redundancies in others.
Interviews with noted Japanese tea professionals, though brief, are welcome, but they have been inserted in the middle of other text, making for an unnecessarily complicated and interrupted reading experience. Oddly, for a book that is a testament to devotion, it seems to peter out, ending abruptly on a tiny chapter about tea and caffeine. A closing chapter serving both as summation and invitation to continue the journey, perhaps with a discussion of the future of tea, would have made for a more satisfying read.
Still, Stories of Japanese Tea, is worth tasting, and not only for its educational offerings. Generously placed throughout the book are beautiful color photographs. Undulating, deep green tea fields on one page give way to a serene view of delicate green gyokuro in a white cup on another. The photos are both aesthetically pleasing and informative, illuminating many parts of the tea-producing and tea-making process.
Though the title page gives no clue, a hunt through the fine print reveals that the exquisite photos were taken by that same jazz drummer whose journey began with one life-changing cup of tea. It makes sense — his passion is there on the page.